Not like Us: How Europeans Have Loved, Hated, and Transformed American Culture since World War II

By Zimmermann, Ulf | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

Not like Us: How Europeans Have Loved, Hated, and Transformed American Culture since World War II


Zimmermann, Ulf, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


Not Like Us: How Europeans Have Loved, Hated, and Transformed American Culture since World War II. Richard Pells. New York: Basic Books, 1997.

"Europeans have been exposed more than anyone else," Pells rightly asserts, "to the full force of America's economic, political, and cultural power in the twentieth century." His own sojourns in Europe convinced him that, even with all this force of influence, whether transmitted by Washington or Hollywood, the values and behavioral patterns of most people in Europe were not significantly altered. Accordingly, he argues that the "Americanization" of Europe is a "myth" and that, instead, Europeans have adapted American culture to their own needs and tastes.

He begins his examination with the ascendancy of the United States following World War I, which had left it the only Western country with the resources for the large-scale production of a potentially international cultural force such as films. By the mid-1920s, consequently, 60-95% (varying by country) of films shown in Europe were American. This resulted in part from the great number of European filmmakers the opportunities of Hollywood had attracted. But of course it was Hitler who did the most to shift the balance of cultural powers from one side of the Atlantic to the other by instigating the great talent exodus from Europe. Here Pells traces the importance of foundations, notably the Rockefeller Foundation, in facilitating this great cultural migration. (As he is careful to remind us, not nearly enough was done because the State Department objected; the only reason it let Jews and Marxists onto, say, the New School faculty was their expertise on Germany.)

Thanks to Hitler, too, Germany came to experience American influence most directly and powerfully after World War II because of the occupation. This enables Pells to use it as a model of both how a country could adapt as well as resist American culture. The Americans failed, for example, to reform its school system along more "democratic" lines. They did give permission (and money) to create a new university but it was the Berliners themselves who wanted their new Free University to model democratic education for the rest of Germany. The FU went on to establish the foremost American Studies program in Europe, another area Pells covers admirably, pointing out that the Germans were most eager to learn about America because it allowed them to forget the past and get on with their lives. Not surprisingly, this great familiarity with the United States and the Free University's democratic character made its students leaders in the uprisings against American foreign policies in the 1960s.

Perhaps this means that at least those German students had fully adopted the democratic principles the United States had tried to instill in the school system earlier so that they had become more American than the Americans who were certainly deviating from their democratic principles in these policies. As an example of thorough Americanization, Pells cites the Spiegel, whose cover indeed mirrors that of Time, but I'd cite it on precisely the other side of his argument: A peek beyond the Spiegel's cover makes it clear that Time-ly conciseness does not in the remotest characterize the former's familiarly German exhaustiveness.

To win the Cold War for the American way the United States not only implemented the Marshall Plan and fielded Fulbright scholars but also funneled funds to conservative German parties via the CIA. Much more effectively, though, it utilized another mass medium, beaming out numerous radio programs with western news and music. The Communists jammed the news but, if they had understood popular culture, they would have jammed the music because that ultimately had a vastly more potent impact on the young.

"Transatlantic misunderstandings," American and European, are richly illustrated through the writings of Mary McCarthy on Italy and Simone de Beauvoir on America, one as misperceived as the other, and through the experiences of the more middle-class folks who began to "do" Europe in increasing numbers with the advent of commercial jet travel in 1958. …

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